Ima Keithel – The oldest woman run market of Asia, a vocal flux of women voices in Manipur


As I moved into the market, I began to hear an amalgam of sounds of people haggling for the goods; the women vendors griping about what happened at their home in the morning, and some groups discussing about the consistent bandhs. It was a welcoming vibe indeed!

I looked at the phaneks (traditional female lower attire) and moved closer to one vendor. I think it was the unique phanek which drew my inclination towards her. With a camera and a notepad in my hand, she knew that I was there for more than a reason to buy goods at the market.

A vendor who has been opening a stall at the keithel since 50 years ago| Image courtesy: Milaap
A vendor who has been opening a stall at the keithel since 50 years ago | Image courtesy: Milaap

Then we gradually began to unravel the historical issues and the present condition of the Ima Keithel. And I met one vendor after another and discussed their subjective experience being at the market for over a period of time.

How did it start?

Ima Market, known as “Ima Keithel”, is arguably known to be one of the oldest and largest women-run-markets in Asia. The word ‘Ima keithel’ is coined from a Manipuri word in which Ima means “mother” and keithel means “market” in Manipuri dialect. So, it seems pretty obvious now why the market is solely run by mothers and not just any women. The accurate date of its establishment is left unknown, however, it is said by the legends of the market that it has all started since the time of the British Colonial. At those times, when their husbands were busy for a battle against China and Myanmar, they did all they could to sustain the family’s needs. It was when the Manipuri mothers started out their venture in trading.

A 65-years-old vendor said to me that she would go out and sell goods at the market which were either traded from outside the state or from her garden. It signified how mothers were a contributing agent to the family and the society.

Despite the fact that many other women run and organised markets have emerged in the Imphal city and other districts of Manipur, there has not been any market which has a whopping number of vendors and has created a historic significant like the Ima keithel.

The usual evening outside scene of Ima Keithel | Image courtesy: Milaap
The usual evening outside scene of Ima Keithel | Image courtesy: Milaap

What’s sold here?

At such interesting place where you could only hear the voices of women louder than anywhere else, varieties of goods are sold. The market has been divided into two sections where one section sells beautifully weaved handlooms and the other sells groceries and household items.

Male customers intrigued with the beautifully woven handlooms | Image courtesy: Milaap
Male customers intrigued with the beautifully woven handlooms | Image courtesy: Milaap

 

Vegetables section of the market | Image courtesy: Milaap
Vegetables section of the market | Image courtesy: Milaap

 

The traditional sweets being sold at the market | Image courtesy: Milaap
The traditional sweets being sold at the market | Image courtesy: Milaap

Most of the items sold here are made by the locals. The 5,000 women vendors at the market sell goods such as shawls, bangles, ritual items, earthenware, vegetables, fish, herbs, and the list goes on.

How has it been a pivotal instrument in empowering women?

The vendors here are a symbol of liberalism, self-reliance, women empowerment and gender equality. They do all they could to contribute to their families. They all are hard-working mothers who continue to strive for a stable livelihood, regardless of what their husbands are doing. I came across different vendors and figured out that some of their husbands and sons are government employees. However, to the mothers here, the zeal to earn for their livelihood has never ceased.

One of the vendors I met has ignited my mind with her words by saying,
 “We should not settle just because we are women. We should find a way to contribute and see what one can do as an individual. We cannot depend on our family or our husband all the time”.

The market is not only a place for trading but, it is also a place for information exchange and network building | Image courtesy: Milaap
The market is not only a place for trading but, it is also a place for information exchange and network building | Image courtesy: Milaap

Through the discussion with various vendors, I came to know that they are also involved in the decision making in the family. As they are the ones accumulating income for the family, they do have a voice in the family. Thereby, the market has given them a platform to earn and has enabled them to be a decision maker in the family.

The market has also empowered women groups to raise their voices so that they can be heard loud and clear. There have been significant historical events as such. One such event gains specific prominence. During the colonial rule in India, British government tried to take control of the local economy by thwarting marketplaces like Ima Keithel. All the women vendors stood united against the British power and declared a women’s war called “Nupi Lan” against the British in 1939 to save the market from foreign invasions.

On another instance, they fought against all odds and negotiated with the government when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit the market building in 2016 and major parts were collapsed. All the women vendors, being together, insisted the government renovate the buildings in a short period of time. In order that their demand is granted, they held a protest in front of the government offices and approached the concerned government officials for the quick renovation of the building.  And it took two years to completely finish the building and the women began to occupy their space again.

Despite the fact that the Ima Keithel is known as a symbol of women empowerment, the women vendors are under the authority of Imphal Municipal Council. The terms and conditions for opening a stall are all governed by the Council – “comprising mostly of male members” – as said by one of the vendors.

What drastic changed has happened in the economy?

In January, 2016, when an earthquake shook the whole market, it left massive cracks with several casualties. It did not only leave a physical damage, however, shook the economy as well. An old vendor said
“When natural calamities hit the market, it disturbed our business a lot. We have shifted for temporary to the keithel nearby Johnstone School. But, our business did not go well as it used to be. We did not profit much as there were only a few customers”.

The pots here are versatile. It could be used for storing drinking water; for ritual purposes and many more | Image courtesy: Milaap
The pots here are versatile. It could be used for storing drinking water; for ritual purposes and many more | Image courtesy: Milaap

Now that the building has been renovated, it is hopeful that the vendors recovered from the disruption in the economy. A group of vendors said to me
“This place is more prominent as it is widely known as an International Market. It intrigues people especially tourists by its enormous number of women. We could now sell more items than the temporary site”.
Ima keithel has regained its essence and there is now a smooth functioning of trading within the market after the natural calamities.

Ima keithel – Today

Most of the vendors at the market have been opening their stalls since a long time. One of the vendors have been selling goods in the market for more than 60 years.

A vendor who owned her stall since 60 years selling flowers for ritual purpose | Image courtesy: Milaap
A vendor who owned her stall since 60 years selling flowers for ritual purpose | Image courtesy: Milaap

The market is run by a group of women coming from different socio-economic backgrounds. As it captivates people’s attention, there are vendors coming from all places. Some are temporary, of which they did not obtain a permanent stall and sell their items outside the market at a very low price. This, in turn, affects the business of the permanent vendors at the market. So far, this has been the major complaints of the vendors.

Looking at the bright side, to some vendors who had been opening stalls for more than 50 years ago, it has become an essential part of their life. Despite some of the old vendors are living a sustainable life by now, they do not want to stop their business. One of the vendors who had been at the market since 50 years ago said to me
“My grandchildren are all working now. They have asked me to relax at home. But I do not want to. The keithel is apart of my life. I want to keep living and experience the beauty of the keithel”.It is evident to say that the vendors have now acquired an emotional attachment to the place and it would not be wrong to say that Ima Keithel is not just a place of an economic hub but it is way beyond it.

Ima Keithel, is not only a platform for trading, but, it is where women stood up for their political rights. It also shows significance of women empowerment.

Lamneihoi Vaiphei | Milaap

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